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The safest pair of hands

Turbulence off the field cannot detract from the achievements of one of the grand careers on it. Simon O'Hagan reports; close-up; Peter Shilton
"Cool and competent, he had one or two difficult balls to cut out but comparatively little in the way of hard shooting . . ."

That was how Jimmy Martin of the Leicester Mercury newspaper summed up the 16-year-old's debut more than 30 years ago, and when Peter Shilton, now 47, clocks up his 1,000th League appearance - in all likelihood a week today when his Leyton Orient team meet Brighton in a Third Division match - you would bet on the coolness and the competence still figuring high on his list of attributes.

As feats of longevity go, Shilton's is up there with any other from any sport. One thinks of Willie Shoemaker, the American jockey who rode into his 60s, or our own Lester Piggott, who had retirement forced on him at the age of 57 after a 45-year career. Cricketers were more durable in the early part of the century, but the only one from the post-war era whose career has extended beyond three decades is Fred Titmus. The best tennis can offer from its recent history is Jimmy Connors, who was still slugging it out at 40.

In football, Stanley Matthews remains the supreme, age-defying example, his last appearance coming five days after his 50th birthday. Admittedly, goalkeepers tend to wear better than outfield players but for Shilton to have kept going for so long through an era in which the game has imposed physical and mental demands of a kind previously unknown is still an amazing achievement. What really brings home the scale of it is the thought that this is someone who has been playing League football since before England won the World Cup.

It was because of the World Cup that the young Shilton got his chance. On 4 May 1966 - a Wednesday - England were playing a warm-up match at Wembley against Yugoslavia, which meant Leicester being without Gordon Banks for their First Division match at home to Everton. Two nights earlier Shilton had played his first senior match for the club, a testimonial against a Scotland XI in which a string of outstanding saves had shown that he was ready for competition proper.

Shilton was still an apprentice, and remembers that on the afternoon of the match he was busy helping paint one of the stands. "I didn't have a lot to do," he recalled last week, "but what I did I did quite well. It was made easier by the testimonial match I'd played in. That settled me down a bit. But when it's your debut and you're that young, all you want is to get through it without making a mistake. What I do remember is Fred Pickering, one of the Everton players, coming up to me afterwards and saying, 'Well done'." Leicester won 3-0 and a remarkable career was under way.

So how has Shilton done it? "I think basically I've always enjoyed the game," he said. "I've always enjoyed competing. I've had a bit of pride in my performance, and that's kept me working hard and wanting to get out there. I started very young and I suppose I've always kept myself fit, and I think as you get older something tells you that you want to try to go on as long as possible. There's no point packing it up if you think you can still do your job."

For the most part Shilton's has been a tale of the supreme professional - the fitness freak who was utterly dedicated to his job, single-mindedly developing and honing his skills, never settling for anything less than the best from himself or others. "He's a perfectionist," said Ray Clemence, his long-time rival for the England goalkeeper's shirt. "It's as simple as that."

Such an attitude prompted more admiration than warmth, and while Shilton's claim to greatness is surely unarguable - his record 125 England caps alone see to that - legend status attaches less readily to him than, say, his predecessor Banks or any of England's other 100-plus cap men, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright.

Consistency was always the key to Shilton's success. Of course he had brilliant reflexes, but it was his total reliability that managers loved - the result of an unusually hard-headed approach to the game that embraced his physical condition, an acute sense of angles, an ability to organise defenders in front him, and the anticipation to snuff out danger before anyone else on his side had even realised there might be something going wrong. For all that, Shilton cannot pluck from his portfolio a save that has entered the national consciousness in the way Banks's save from Pele did in 1970.

Clemence remembers one against Coventry City, from a header by Mike Ferguson, when Nottingham Forest got the 0-0 draw that was enough to win them the 1978 League title. Shilton liked that one too. He also cited a save from Kenny Dalglish in an England-Scotland match at Wembley - "I was going left and touched it away with my right" - and a couple of good ones for Forest when they beat Hamburg 1-0 to retain the European Cup in 1980. When the big games came along, Shilton rarely let his side down.

But beneath an exterior impression of absolute certainty, Shilton's personal life has been dragged down by the kind of problems with drinking and gambling that suggest that strength of mind is something that deserted him once he left the pitch. Peter Rodrigues, the former Leicester and Wales defender who played with Shilton in the early part of his career, remembers him for the intensity with which he trained, but that "he could be stupid in other ways".

After distinguished service at Leicester, Stoke, Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Derby County, Shilton came seriously unstuck when he ventured into player- management at Plymouth Argyle five years ago, where his troubled finances became mixed up with the club's. A year ago he was nearly half a million pounds in debt, and last week his agent was being blunt about his continuing predicament. "He's skint," he said. One can only guess at the demons that have undermined such an honourable career.

In the meantime, the 1,000th League appearance has been a big goal, according to Clemence. Since he got to 995 more than three years ago, when he played his last game for Plymouth, it hasn't looked on until recently. After a spell at Wimbledon without playing a match, a solitary outing as a substitute for Bolton towards the end of the 1994-95 season took him to 996, where he was again stuck while on the books of Coventry and then West Ham. But two weeks ago he went to Leyton Orient, where he has added three games to his tally, putting him on 999.

There may be a whiff of stage-management about all of this, but the Orient manager Tommy Taylor insists he is not just doing Shilton a favour. "I wanted someone with a bit of experience," he said. He might just have found the right man.

The life and times of Peter Shilton

18 September 1949: Born, Leicester.

May 1966: League debut for Leicester, aged 16.

October 1967: Scores with a punt upfield against Southampton.

November 1970: England debut in a 3-1 win over East Germany at Wembley.

October 1973: Member of England team who draw 1-1 with Poland at Wembley to miss out on place in 1974 World Cup finals.

November 1974: After 286 League games for Leicester, joins Stoke City for pounds 300,000.

September 1977: After 110 games for Lei-cester, joins Nottingham Forest for pounds 270,000.

May 1978: Forest win League title.

May 1979: Forest beat Malmo 1-0 to win European Cup.

May 1980: Forest beat Hamburg 1-0 to retain European Cup.

August 1982: After 202 games for Forest, joins Southampton for pounds 325,000.

July 1987: After 188 games for Southampton, joins Derby County for pounds 90,000.

June 1988: Plays 100th match for England, a 3-1 defeat by Holland in European Championship finals in Dusseldorf.

June 1990: Plays his 125th and last match for England, in the World Cup third-place play-off against Italy in Bari.

March 1992: After 175 League games for Derby, joins Plymouth Argyle on a free transfer as player-manager.

1995 and 1996: After 34 League games for Plymouth, has spells at Wimbledon, Bolton (one League appearance), Coventry, West Ham and Leyton Orient (three League appearances to date).

Total League appearances: 999.